Sunday, January 6, 2013

GMO: both sides of the coin

I have mixed feelings about the GMO debate.  There seem to be so many issues around GMO products, both in the plant and animal kingdom, that it's nearly impossible to sort it all out.  One of the big issues is that people don't seem to agree what it means to be "genetically modified"

Technically, most everything we eat is genetically modified, especially when it comes to plants.  There is no such thing as "natural corn" unless you're talking about indigenous maize.  By 2009, genetically modified corns made up over 85% of all corn grown in the US.

Let's face it, when faced with a choice between the sweet corn you get at the grocery store (or many roadside stands) or the indigenous maize, most people would choose the plump, sweet corn... and they wouldn't think twice about it.

Consider the banana.  Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron did. They used it as an example of evidence of a creator.  They were wrong, of course, and right.  The banana is created... by man.  Cultivated bananas, those lovely fruits like the one Ray holds in his video and you can find in any supermarket, are modified from one of two original species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.  

When it was called "hybridization" people didn't seem worried.  Now that it's called "genetic modification" people are sitting up and taking notice.

Now perhaps the difference is that now the modification is occurring in labs... that there's direct introduction of genes from one plant (or animal) species into the dna of another.  This seems a lot less "natural" than forced cross breeding, and therefore a lot more suspect.

The fact of the matter is that hybridization, the same thing that makes your roses so lovely, is generally not something that the species can sustain.  Think of mules.  Cross breeding often results in sterility.  Even your roses, which have had the scent bred out of them, have lost either ability to reproduce or the qualities that make them successful in reproduction.  Recently, rose breeders have begun to breed scent back into roses, not because of pollination issues, but because we humans like the scent.

Most genetic modification (or hybridization) occurs in order to make food crops more productive.  With more and more people populating the planet, we've struggled to find a way to feed everyone, and to grow crops with higher yield and less resources. But the health benefits and risks of these crops have come into question.

Currently a French study has come under fire for suggesting that a GMO corn causes cancer.  There are all sorts of problems inherent in that study, including the strain of rats used, which are cancer prone anyway, and the small sample size used in the study. One of the issues in this study isn't the corn itself, but Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide popularly used to aid in crop production.

And while people are hotly debating the French studies, other studies on GMO foods go ignored by the media, are studies on food allergies caused by GMO crops.  Introduction of proteins of a plant which an individual may be allergic to into a food the individual may not be allergic to in its natural state may become a future health risk without GMO labeling.

GMO labeling has become a hotbutton issue, because corporations and some scientists feel that it will unfairly bias consumers against GMO products, which have been vilified in many pop-culture circles... usually for exactly the wrong reasons.   There is, as of yet, no proof of long term risk to consuming GMO products.  And GMO products do increase crop productivity. And the FDA has ruled it safe.

... just like DDT.

The problem with some of these new developments and genetic technologies is that they are new, and they are varied. We don't know what to look for (or test for) any more than we did when we were evaluating DDT.

While we're saying that this is a turning point in crop production (like we did with DDT) we're testing and confirming (like we did with DDT) and the rest?  Well, it's a waiting game.

So assuming that GMO is perfectly safe for humans after all, and putting aside any issues with products like wheat where there is suspicion that the quest for improved crop production has lead to a decrease in the nutritive quality of the food (see Wheat Belly, although what I consider a pop-culture rather than scientific take on the problem) and also putting aside the concerns over the ethics of bioengineering, let's just look at environmental and legal issues.

Because the GMO crops and animals are owned by the company that created them... they are patented, accidental breeding of these animals can cause legal issues.  Pollen does not stop at the sign that says "no trespassing".  Bees and butterflies don't read. Neither does the wind.  But there are serious legal issues if crops owned by another individual in an adjacent field show the genetic markers of the modified corn when no modified corn seed was purchased.

Likewise there are issues with pet breeding, including GMO Glowfish.  Owners must not allow the animals to breed, limiting what other fish they put in their tanks.

And in a situation where there is large-scale breeding for food products, animals that may accidentally be reintroduced into the wild can have negative impact on the wild population, especially if that wild population is endangered.

The US FDA has recently approved a genetically modified salmon for consumption.  The salmon has been modified with eel genes to make it mature and grow about twice as fast as wild salmon, prompting concern from environmental groups (with peer reviewed scientists, not merely a pop-culture movement)  including the Ocean Conservancy.

The issues relating to GMO food production are a great deal more complex than a question of productivity, or of the possibility that these products may be carcinogens.  There are legal issues, environmental issues, and issues with long term effects we have no way of predicting.  One thing is sure: we need to find ways to be more productive with our food crops as our population exceeds the carrying weight of the planet.  At the same time, we're absolutely right to be wary of the products that promise to answer our current need.  

It's been summed up well in The Tick cartoon, where the Tick famously says to his sidekick,"Well, once again my friend, we find that science is a two-headed beast. One head is nice, it gives us aspirin and other modern conveniences,...but the other head of science is bad! Oh beware the other head of science, Arthur, it bites!"

We may find our salvation in today's scientific advances, or we may find ourself bitten.  We won't know for sure until it happens.